A select group of the top student robot-builders assembled Tuesday in physics instructor Pat Keefe’s bottom-floor laboratory at Clatsop Community College.
The team, comprised of engineering, mathematics and other technologically gifted students from Astoria, Warrenton and Jewell, is tasked with building a new underwater robot for the Maritime Archaeological Society to find shipwrecks around the mouth of the Columbia River and on the North Coast.
Organizing the construction of a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, is Georges Oates Larsen, head of the college’s underwater robotics team and a member of the archaeological society.
“We were looking into the possibility of having the competition ROV do these missions,” Larsen said. “We looked at that, and that ended up being a little too expensive. We switched gears and said ‘Hey, it would be really interesting if we could start up an ROV program.’ We could create a division of the ROV club that’s responsible for constructing and working with an OpenROV.”
The archaeological society, using a grant from the Clatsop County Cultural Coalition, purchased a submersible from OpenROV, a company that manufactures inexpensive kits for educational programs.
“It’s an experience for sure,” said Darby Cullen, a mechanical engineering major recruited to build the robot. “We’ve explored space, and we haven’t explored underwater to any remarkable degree.”
Cullen, along with fellow engineering student and Jewell School graduate Jonathan Kaminski, are novices to robot-building but largely in charge of assembling the submersible. Helping them and Larsen, who specializes in the software and wiring, are Brenton Davis and Ashley Fish, lead members of Warrenton High School’s underwater robotics team, and Sam Daire, another college student who has been a part of the robotics teams at the college and Seaside High School.
Larsen said the team hopes to have the submersible ready this summer for their first mission: exploring the wreckage of the Silvia de Grasse, a packet ship carrying lumber that sank in the Columbia River near Pier 39 in 1849.
“They know where it is,” Larsen said. “We’re just going and inspecting it.”
After that comes the challenge of taking the submersible into more open waters. Larsen said team members have signed nondisclosure agreements, searching for some shipwrecks that have yet to be found.
The Beeswax shipwreck
The archaeological society met in Astoria in February and voted to adopt the Beeswax Wreck Project as their own. Scott Williams, archaeologist with the Washington State Department of Transportation, is the principal investigator with the project, which began in 2004.
“Lewis and Clark, the fur traders in the area, the Indians brought them beeswax to trade,” Williams told the annual meeting of the society in the Barbey Maritime Center. “Especially the fur traders know that there are no honeybees. There’s no native honeybees anywhere in the New World. So they asked the natives where they got this beeswax, and they told them there was a shipwreck.”
Williams said he is 99.9 percent sure the source of beeswax washing up over the years on Nehalem Spit near Manzanita is the Santo Cristo de Burgos, a Spanish galleon that started back from Manila, Philippines, in 1693 loaded with beeswax and other commodities destined for Mexico.
“Only the Spanish carry large cargoes of beeswax,” Williams said, adding the markings on the beeswax are Spanish.
Based on the dating of porcelain found on the beach, he said, the shipwreck off of Manzanita most likely occurred between 1680 and 1700, and is likely spread out after being shifted by a large tsunami that hit the Oregon Coast in 1700.
“This is not a salvage or a treasure hunt,” Williams said.
The wreck is protected by state, federal and international law, he said, with the Spanish government likely having first dibs on any wreckage.
Over the past decade, the Beeswax Wreck Project has probably spent 20 days total in the field, Williams said, owing to the divers, boats, good weather and water conditions needed to put together a field study.
For the archaeological society, the submersible will allow more dives throughout the year as they try to document shipwrecks. On land, Williams said, the archaeological society needs people to remain vigilant when combing the beach.
“We need people on the beach, if they find stuff, to report it,” Williams said. “Don’t pick it up, put it in your pocket and go. Notify a park ranger. If it’s in danger of being washed away, like something right at the surf line, OK, pick that up and then tell a park ranger.”
For more information about the Maritime Archaeological Society, visit http://maritimearchaeological.org